Editor's note: The following essay concerning the exhibition Painting World War II: The California Style Watercolor Artists, on view at the Oceanside Museum of Art April 18 - October 3, 2010, was reprinted in Resource Library on June 16, 2010 with permission of the Oceanside Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Oceanside Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Painting World War II: The California Style Watercolor Artists

by Glen Knowles


Painting World War II: The California Style Watercolor Artists is a historic first examination of the paintings by California Style artists on the subject of WWII. Each painting tells an intimate and in turn, dramatic story offering a fresh perspective on World War II. This perspective is a mix of two things: first, a passion for using watercolor in spontaneous and expressive new ways, and second, with the influence of WWII, a rich sense of old fashioned "We are all in this together" patriotism.

Forged in the Great Depression, California Style watercolors form an important West Coast chapter of American Regionalist art. In selecting Regionalism, California artists demonstrated little interest in the dominant European intellectual art of the day and chose instead to create a realist form of art focusing its values on ordinary American people, involved in day to day work and pleasures, on farms, in towns and cities of California. Examining a broad survey of everyday life these artists created a visual record of the unfolding local history of California beginning in the mid 1920s and extending into the 1970s. California Style watercolors form the largest body of paintings in this Regionalist vein.

During the late 1920s and early 1930s a small group of Chouinard students, including Hardie Gramatky, James Patrick, Rex Brandt, Lee Blair, and Phil Paradise, were instructed by top teachers of the era, such as watercolor painters Barse Miller and Paul Sample. The young Chouinard teacher Millard Sheets was a tremendous influence on his students for the distinctive watercolors he painted and as an inspiration for his astonishing "rising star" art career in the middle of the Great Depression. These teachers and a host of others, introduced a world of aesthetic ideas to these young men ranging from those of the Americans Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent to European, Chinese, Japanese, Persian and Mexican Muralist concepts.

Discussing these stimulating ideas and incorporating them in their watercolors, on frequent sketching trips together, their paintings developed an exciting new look. Executing with extraordinary speed and bravura, using bold brushwork, strong colors and muscular rhythms, they produced dramatic interpretations of their subjects. Challenging themselves to the highest standards for painting on location with watercolor, they were creating what would soon become known as The California Style.

With Millard Sheets leading the way they exhibited in the local California Watercolor Society shows and soon were participating in and winning regional and national awards in important western and prestigious east coast art exhibitions. The success and popularity of the movement grew rapidly and by 1941 there were over two hundred watercolorists creating thousands of California Regionalist watercolors.

With the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec.7, 1941 America was plunged into World War II. Few artists continued to paint in watercolor during the war years. The artistic momentum built up by the California Style ground to a halt. Formerly a rural paradise, California changed overnight with the unprecedented military and industrial build up in response to the war in the Pacific Theatre. Tens of billions of federal dollars flowed into California, funding a huge selection of large and small businesses with military contracts to produce bombers, ships, tanks, support materials and goods for the war effort. The harbors of San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco became the largest west coast military ports, and hundreds of other military installations were established up and down the state between them.

Strict national security made it against the law to disclose military projects and installations, and an artist could go to jail for painting watercolors of them. A few watercolorists, such as John Haley, Dong Kingman and Hardie Gramatky created watercolors which, while carefully avoiding these restricted subjects, still managed to explore the impact of WWII on everyday life. Images of victory gardens, war bond billboards, anti aircraft balloons floating above Los Angeles and blimps standing watch over oil fields gave a sense of what the average California resident witnessed during this period. Perhaps the most frequent military subject painted in California at this time was of the tens of thousands of young service men, pouring in from all over the country, enjoying their brief time on leave, attending amusement parks and dating local girls before overseas deployment.

Many of the original California Style artists were already too old, or had wives and children so were not eligible to enlist. Eager to contribute, when asked they welcomed the opportunity to use their artistic skills for the war effort. In May 1943 the U.S. Government established an official Combat Art Program inviting 42 of the nation's finest artists to participate. Californians Millard Sheets, Barse Miller and Ed Reep were among this group. Barse Miller was assigned rank of Captain and head of the Combat Art Section in the South Pacific. Millard Sheets traveled with the Air Force to the India- Burma theatre. Ed Reep served in the North African and Italian Campaigns. Other artists enlisted or were drafted and when their skills were discovered they were given assignments to create watercolors of their experiences as enlisted personnel.

Four months after its creation, the Combat Art Program was suddenly defunded by Congress and abruptly dropped. Some artists were given new titles as war artists within their respective branches of the military and created large bodies of artwork for those entities. Artists Millard Sheets, Barse Miller and Paul Sample were hired as artist-correspondents for Life Magazine and created watercolors which were sent back home for publication, to help satisfy the public's desire for images of events overseas. These watercolor paintings were among the few full color images of the war the American public viewed. In the September 1941 issue of The National Geographic Magazine, just before Pearl Harbor, Arthur Beaumont created an 8 page full color insert profiling the great ships of the Navy. This article was so well received in November 1942 he created a second 16 page portfolio of watercolors featuring the Army on maneuvers for the magazine.

Ed Reep and Barse Miller accomplished what was thought to be impossible by most war artists; they created watercolors in the midst of heavy combat at the front lines. In "Air Raid Arawe Beachhead" Barse Miller's agitated brushwork, instead of his usual masterful strokes, conveyed the emotional turmoil he felt painting with two soldiers digging into the sand in front of him as the battle raged. Ed Reep's "On the Mussolini Canal" managed to capture a quiet moment between savage bombardments in the trenches of Anzio. In his book A Combat Artist in World War II, Ed Reep relates why he wished to be as close to the front as possible. Reep felt painting the greatest masterpiece of combat art would come from painting there and famously wrote that at times he felt he was fighting the enemy with his paintbrushes.

In the final chapter of WWII: the invasion of Japan, almost one and a half million troops were being mustered from all over Europe and the Pacific for what was feared would be the fiercest battle of the entire war. At this moment Japan surrendered. Naval artist Standish Backus accompanied the 4th Division of the Marines on the first wave on Japan and recorded in a series of paintings events which followed.

In a post script to the end of the war, military experts and scientists wanted to better understand and record the power and destructive capabilities of their new atomic weapon. A fleet of 95 ships was arranged around the Bikini Atoll. The Able Test was detonated 520 feet high in the air. The second Baker Test was released 90 feet underwater. Artist Arthur Beaumont witnessed the tests and refused to wear safety glasses, thereby creating the only two paintings demonstrating the true colors of atomic bomb blasts.

Out of necessity WWII California Style watercolors are more narrative or story-telling in nature than the pre war art. Within the twelve thousand WWII paintings created by all American artists, the quality of the California Style paintings in this show, full of patriotism and infused with the passion and technical virtuosity of the pre war California Style, stands as a distinguished chapter. We are just starting to understand the scarcity and unique contribution of this artwork to California and American history. For many of these paintings, forgotten and filed away for decades, this is the first time they have been publicly displayed. As paintings of America's "Greatest War," and the single most important historic event of the 20th century, these are not just quaint or nostalgic images but are irreplaceable works of art that document those fateful years in which our very way of life and our most cherished American freedoms were tested and secured.


About the author

Glen Knowles is a professor of art at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster. He teaches drawing, painting, and watercolor and is recognized as the inventor of the color wheel palette. Knowles has curated seven exhibitions on the history of California Art and has a great passion for California Style watercolors. For further information about the author, please click here.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on June 16, 2010, with permission of the Oceanside Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on June 15, 2010.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Danielle Susalla, Assistant Director, Oceanside Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text

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